Now is a great time for a 'staycation'. Lee Atkinson has some home-grown alternatives to going overseas.
Travel trends come and travel trends go but the swan-diving Aussie dollar, economic uncertainty and restless political climate means the latest travel craze, the "staycation", is the best-value holiday around.
A "staycation" is all about spending your hard-earned holiday time, and cash, at home. Purist staycationers will argue that to do it properly, you need to stay home - your suburban home - and chill out in your backyard pool, daytrip to local parks and museums or check out local festivals, rather than swan off to exotic overseas locales. Trouble is, it's all too tempting to just stay in and waste the day checking emails, fixing the fence or painting the ceiling, so we reckon we can stretch the concept of "our backyard" a bit and still call Australia home. After all, the Aussie dollar is still great value in Australia.
Camp it up, African-style
A highlight of any African safari has always been camping in style in a five-star safari tent. But why go to Africa when you can glam it up in a batch of new luxury safari tents that have popped up in national parks across the country. The latest to open its canvas doors is Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, in the heart of the Cape Range National Park on Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef. It's one of the few places where you can swim with massive whale sharks, the world's largest fish.
Each of the five tents features a supremely comfortable bed dressed in 500 thread-count linen, a ceiling fan, solar-powered lights and an ensuite bathroom.
Less expensive and slightly closer to home are the new wilderness retreats at Wilsons Promontory and Cape Conran in eastern Victoria, which also feature raised wooden floors, canvas walls, big comfy beds, wildlife and windswept beaches on your doorstep.
Or, for a real safari experience, head to Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo for a stay in a zoofari tent in the heart of the savannah and fall asleep to the sound of a not-so-distant lion's roar.
Salsalis.com.au; parkweb.vic.gov.au/4wilderness.cfm; zoofari.com.au.
Until recently, our trans-Tasman neighbour, New Zealand, had the monopoly on super-luxe lodges surrounded by awe-inspiring landscapes. Now, since Southern Ocean Lodge opened its beautifully designed doors on a remote headland overlooking Hanson Bay on Kangaroo Island, you no longer need to cross "the ditch" for a dose of six-star style.
Moulded in the traditions of New Zealand's acclaimed Huka Lodge and the breathtaking Aman resorts of South-East Asia, Southern Ocean Lodge is South Australia's first true-luxury lodge. Each of the 21 suites features spacious sleeping areas, stylish sunken lounges, dramatic glass-walled bathrooms and outdoor terraces, all with stunning views.
If you can tear yourself away from the views, the spa (which uses the excellent Dreamtime-inspired Li'tya range of treatment products and Aboriginal massage techniques) and the amazing food created by chef Tim Bourke and his team, there's a range of guided island tours included in the nightly tariff, from sunrise encounters with sea lions to night-time star gazing in an unpolluted sky.
Of course, all this decadent lodging doesn't come cheap but true luxury never does. And at least you won't have to suffer any rugby jokes.
Cruise at home
Australia has plenty of great cruising destinations that are like nowhere else on Earth. Cruise the Kimberley for more sky-high waterfalls than you can count, including the famous horizontal waterfalls, mysterious Aboriginal rock art, crocodiles, boabs, red cliffs and gorges.
And why fly to the South Pacific or Mexico when you can spend a few days snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef at your leisure on a three-day Townsville to Cairns cruise?
If river cruising is more your style, forget the Mississippi. Paddle steam down the Murray on the PS Murray Princess instead, through some of the driest parts of the driest continent. Despite the drought, it's still one of the world's great rivers. According to Captain Ray Weedon, it's even better than it used to be: "... as inland sources of water recede, animals and birds are migrating to the river environment in a concentration of animal life rarely seen on the river."
If you've been dreaming of sailing the Greek Islands but the credit crunch has hit, think instead of chartering your own yacht - either bareboat, which means you do all the work or hire your own crew - and spend a few days sailing the beautiful Whitsundays in northern Queensland.
If you want a true "staycation", spend the weekend cruising Sydney Harbour aboard the MV Captain Cook's Explorer, where you're guaranteed multimillion-dollar harbour views (plus all meals and two nights' accommodation, tours and entertainment) for half the price of a suite in a luxury hotel.
kimberleycruises.com; www.coralprincess.com.au; www.captaincook.com.au; sunsail.com.au.
You don't need to battle the crush and chaos of India or scale Tibetan peaks to find enlightenment; Wollongong's a much easier and cheaper option. Reconnect with your inner self at Nan Tien Buddhist Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. Just two hours' drive south of Sydney, the temple offers weekend retreats and classes on tai chi, meditation, calligraphy and the indispensable skill of lotus flower folding.
If you've never really tried meditation before, the Weekend Meditation Retreat is great for beginners and, because the accommodation is in the motel-style Pilgrim Lodge, you can always escape back to your room and turn on the TV if the silence gets a bit much.
The tai chi retreat combines meditation with classes and is great for releasing stress and tension. And the vegetarian meals are delicious.
Taking the waters
The recent reopening of one of Australia's oldest bathhouses means you no longer need to long- haul it to Europe to take the waters when you can get just as good on the outskirts of Melbourne.
Fresh from a two-year, $13-million renovation, the historic Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa now boasts a stunning contemporary architectural design with more than 30 wet and dry treatment rooms, making it one of the largest spas in the country. It also offers, in true European style, traditional communal bathing in mineral waters.
The undisputed lord of the springs, the Daylesford and Hepburn Springs area is home to Australia's richest concentration of mineral springs. But these are no ordinary mineral springs. They are, if you believe the locals, so rich in therapeutic powers they can relieve just about any ill you like to imagine.
They say the sulphate purifies your liver; the calcium is good for your bones; the bicarbonate balances the pH in your bloodstream; the magnesium is good for your kidneys; the silica will help strengthen your bones; the sodium helps prevent stomach disorders; the iron will help carry oxygen to your brain and your mind and muscles will thank you for the potassium.
You can't ask for much more than that.
You might just be an hour or two from Adelaide but it feels like Germany.
Take a week and explore two of the country's best wine regions.
Start in the Adelaide Hills, a mixture of Australian bushland and European-style vineyards with historic villages and towns such as Hahndorf, settled by Prussian refugees in the 1830s. Then wind your way north to Tanunda and Angaston in the Barossa Valley.
The Lutheran settlers who came here 160 years ago have left not only a legacy of beautiful churches but a bounty of wonderful small meats, sausages, preserved fruits, cheese and delicious breads, all unique to the valley.
If Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he wrote, "There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign", then embark on the ultimate "staycation" and take a fresh look at your homeland through Aboriginal eyes.
Take a trip to the Tiwi Islands, a beautiful 20-minute flight across the Timor Sea from Darwin, and immerse yourself in Tiwi art and culture, learning about the complex social rituals linked to the construction of Pukumani burial poles. Most tours include the chance to share morning tea with women elders; brush up on your AFL knowledge before you go and you will have an instant ice-breaker.
Take a tour of Kakadu with an Aboriginal guide and traditional owner to understand more about the Bininj and Mungguy relationship to the land. Look, listen, celebrate and learn at the annual Garma Festival near Nhulunbuy in north-east Arnhem Land, held each August.
Learn about bush tucker in central Australia or be inspired by the diversity of Aboriginal art in Alice Springs, the Kimberley and the Top End.
There are also experiences to be had closer to home. In Sydney, take a cruise aboard the Tribal Warrior for a pre-colonial perspective of the Harbour City.
aussieadventure.com.au (Tiwi tours); garma.telstra.com; travelnt.com; australiasnorthwest.com; tribalwarrior.org.
WHAT'S NEW FOR OLD FAVOURITES
· Gold Coast goes glam A holiday on the Gold Coast used to be all about the children but a raft of new day spas, some seriously good shopping, new five-star hotels and three-star restaurants means it's now just as much fun for grown-ups. See verygoldcoast.com.au.
· Port Macquarie grows up Forget daggy caravan parks and fish and chips by the sea, think very good food and wine, high-end soft adventure and a bevy of just-opened beachfront hotels. See portmacquarieinfo.com.au.
· Big Banana gets slipperier It now claims to have the largest inflatable water slide, not just in Coffs Harbour but on the planet. See bigbanana.com.
· Flying high Wollongong's curvy coastal touring route, Grand Pacific Drive, gets better and better and the Illawarra Fly, a treetop canopy walk with a 45-metre-high lookout tower, is just one of the new attractions on offer. See grandpacificdrive.com.au.
· Sydney Harbour opens up Slowly but surely the islands of Sydney Harbour are being opened up to visitors and you can get away from it all (in a middle-of-the-harbour type of way) camping on Cockatoo Island. See cockatooisland.gov.au. The old Quarantine Station at North Head now has stylish accommodation with views to die for. See qstation.com.au.
· Slice it up on the Central Coast The new Mantra Kooindah Waters Golf and Spa Resort has an 18-hole golf course, day spa and everything else that you'd expect to find in a resort that, until now, was a little short on the ground on this part of the coast. See kooindahwaters.com.au.